Boyle judge-exec candidates talk drugs, jail and hemp

Published 6:42 am Saturday, October 13, 2018

The two candidates hoping to become Boyle County’s fourth ever judge-executive shared their positions and qualifications with the public during a candidate forum Thursday night. The event took place at Gravely Hall at Danville High School and nearly every seat was taken by “on the fence” spectators and candidate supporters.

Democrat Gary Chidester and Republican Howard Hunt are running for the seat current held by Judge-Executive Harold McKinney, who is not seeking re-election after holding the office for around a decade. The forum was organized by the Danville-Boyle County Chamber of Commerce.

Chidester said there are three major issues facing Boyle County: social issues concerning the jail, addiction and rehabilitation; infrastructure with roads, bridges and broadband and cell service; and economic development, with growth and workforce readiness. The key to improving all of the issues isn’t just fiscal responsibility, but also depends on healing the divide among the community, Chidester said.

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Chidester said he’s the best candidate because of his experience as a past member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. He was able to see how the people all over the county, including in Perryville and Junction City felt about their communities. “In that time I believe I got to experience what it looked like to truly see our community. I think that has given me a leg up on being county judge-executive because I do understand that and I appreciate that.”

Howard Hunt said he equates the job of county judge-executive to being like “the governor of the county.” He has master’s degrees in government and public administration, and his work has mostly been in state and county governments, where he learned about courthouse politics.

He thinks he’s the best candidate “because I’ve spent a lifetime working in government service. I understand its processes. … I believe I’m the best candidate because of my life’s experiences in dealing with situations that are very important to leading this county.”

When asked how he would address overcrowding at the local jail and other issues concerning it, Chidester said he has been a volunteer at the jail for four years. “I know that treatment works. I haven’t heard that it works. I know that it works.” On the state side of the jail where inmates can receive treatment and special training, only 65 percent of them end up back in jail. However, on the county side where treatment isn’t readily available, 85 percent end up back once they’re released, he said. “I want there to be treatment for our kids on the county side,” which would help “immensely” overcrowding at the jail.

Hunt said when he toured the jail, he saw “it needs a lot of changes structurally.” According to a recent survey commissioned by the county, Hunt thinks some of the inmates stay too long because of financial bonds placed on them. “We need to shorten those stays.” He also wants to work with substance abuse programs to help keep recidivism down.

Candidates were then asked if the county needs to invest in workforce development, especially since the Economic Development Partnership has recently cut $40,000 from its workforce development program.

Hunt said, “Workforce development is critical in the economic development issue.” He said there are many “good paying job vacancies, with benefits” already in this county, but workers can’t pass the drug screenings. He said the county needs to be “very proactive” to make sure good people can work in our factories and be clean through substance abuse programs. “We can’t bring new industries into our community until we have our entire workforce situation resolved … I think the EDP has failed in not doing something.”

Chidester said he has been a part of the EDP. “I totally and completely agree that workforce development is one of the most important things that we have in front of us. We have to train our workforce” for personal service and high-tech jobs. And through Bluegrass Community and Technical College, “we have to make that a priority.”

The next question was how each candidate would help make Boyle County more attractive for businesses to relocate here.

Chidester said, “I think the biggest thing I’ll do is have an open door and an open phone. There is no job too big. There is no job too small.”

Hunt said, “I believe workforce development is giving our people skills and training now,” and making sure they are drug-free. He said industries here can’t fill their vacancies now. “How can we hope to bring new industry to that same workforce that is inadequate to meet the needs?” He also wants to expand internet access throughout the county.

The first thing that Hunt said he would change if elected, is his accessibility to the public. “I want to listen to what people across this county have to say.”

Chidester said he would “empower all the main volunteers that are in our community. This community cannot run and be what it is today without all the countless people who volunteer their time.” He said he would empower everyone who volunteers to be on any of the fiscal court’s committees. “I want to empower those people where they can make decisions and know they’ve got our support.”

The candidates were asked, “What is the most critical policy change the fiscal court must make to face the future effectively?”

Chidester paused and said, “I’ve got to do this without crying … We’ve got to change how we treat people that have made mistakes. I’ve been given all kinds of breaks. People who — just because they’re in jail and they’ve made a bad decision, does not mean incarceration is what they need.”

He said people deserve second chances. “I want us to become a jail in which we … show grace … and show mercy … to help them.”

Hunt said, “We have to change our attitude toward workforce development. It’s absolutely critical that our industries and our businesses in this community, in this county… are fully employed all the time. If we can achieve that, our revenues would go up and the county could function at a higher level of efficiency.”

When given the chance, Hunt asked Chidester what was his plan to improve the agriculture sector of the county. Chidester answered he was surprised at how much economic impact agriculture has in the area right now. “I think one of the greatest things in front of us is industrial hemp.” Referencing the crop’s genetic relationship to marijuana, he said, “My understanding is, you could smoke an acre of industrial hemp and still not get high.”

Chidester said growing hemp “is right down our wheelhouse” and being able to gow it would help local farmers.

Chidester then asked Hunt how he would plan on bringing Democrats and Republicans together.

Hunt said his career was built on building teams — “teams that are focused on excellence … not just in the military, but in state government and county government. I’ve built teams that focused on excellence.”

The moderator then asked what fiscal court can do to help get control of the drug epidemic impacting the community.

Chidester said the monthly ASAP (Agency for Substance Abuse Policy) meetings are the most powerful meetings he attends. Agency members dealing with addiction, poverty, hospital and other social issues come together for an hour and discuss how they can work together on how to deal with those issues. “They do it for the love of their community. So what I would want to do is empower those individuals.”

Hunt said the fiscal court should be involved in helping to develop new and innovative substance-abuse treatment programs in the private sector to work with the courts. He wants the county to develop a process where people can get clean so they can get the jobs they need. “I would feel really confident if we started being aggressive in bringing private sector substance abuse programs into the community,” Hunt said.

When asked about their opinions on legalizing medical marijuana, both candidates said they don’t support it right now and that more research should be conducted. They both don’t want to legalize another drug that could be easily abused.

However, they also acknowledged there may be a future for CBD oils that are derived from industrial hemp — a crop which Hunt has been growing as part of the state’s pilot program for the crop.

Asked if fiscal court should discontinue funding for the Bunny Davis Recreational Center and increase funding to Millennium Park, Chidester immediately said, “Yes.”

“I would like to look and the future and not at the past. I think Bunny Davis has served us as a community really well. But I think our future is not on that corner. I think it’s in Millennium Park. I think it’s in the fairgrounds. I think that’s where we need to focus our financial future.”

Hunt said the facility and pool have structural issues. But there’s still a lot the city and county need to do to move forward on the issue. “Does it need to be closed and moved toward Millennium Park? That is yet to be determined,” Hunt said.

In closing, Chidester said he wanted to talk about the things in the community that are right. He talked about how people have stepped up and worked together to improve their own communities. “That’s who we are.”

Hunt said the drug epidemic is hurting the jail, economy, workforce and families. He said improvements in communications around the county will be a focus for him.